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Editor’s Note: This column has been updated to clarify the lifespan of Holtec’s canisters used for storing nuclear waste at SONGS; the duration of the coastal development permit; and details regarding the metallic overlay for repairing canisters.

Unanimous vote approves new permit that would allow 20-year storage at SONGS

By Jake Howard

We’re entering a new phase in the saga of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). Last week, in a unanimous vote of 10-0, the California Coastal Commission approved an inspection and maintenance program that will allow Southern California Edison to continue to store spent nuclear fuel and waste on-site.

The program will begin in 2024 and will include the inspection of two of the stainless-steel storage canisters every five years, as well as the inspection of one additional test canister every 2½ years. Also, the newly approved program allows Edison to utilize a spray-on metallic coating in case canisters have a defect or flaw that’s deeper than 0.0625 inches.

The coastal development permit for the storage facility does not expire for another 15 years. At that time the Coastal Commission can revisit the decision and explore alternatives to move the storage site to another location depending on rising sea levels and other potential scenarios that could affect the integrity of the canisters.

It is worth noting here that canisters have a warranty of 25 years. They have a design life of 60 years and a service life of 100 years or more.

“This type of material has no business being in the coastal zone of California,” said Coastal Commission Chairman Steve Padilla. “It is a no-win, I think, for all of us, but I think under the circumstances, (voting yes is) the right step.”

“This vote is the outcome of the utter failure of the federal government,” Padilla said. “We don’t need to look any further than Fukushima, Chernobyl or Thee-Mile Island.”

The decision is largely based on the fact that the federal government has failed to develop a long-term storage site for this type of material, and there simply is nowhere else to store the waste from the SONGS’ decommissioning.

Precedent for this decision was set back in 2015, when the commission approved the storage plans for the same reason.

“The public has a great level of fear and loathing over this process,” said Coastal Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh, who is also the executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. “Commissioner Padilla said the plan is ‘probably adequate.’ Probably adequate is not the standard that we all want to meet.”

“By holding their nose and voting yes, the commissioners made themselves victims of their own circumstance,” said Nina Babiarz, a board member of the group Public Watchdogs. “The circumstance we have now is a deeply flawed inspection and maintenance plan for SONGS has been approved. While the Coastal Commission doesn’t have jurisdiction over much at San Onofre, today they blew the rare chance they did have to get it right.”

Unfortunately, there is no good solution at this time. There was a facility at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert that was in development, but after opposition from Nevada lawmakers, the project was scuttled.

There are private companies in both Texas and New Mexico that have expressed interest in building a long-term storage facility, but, obviously, there are numerous environmental and political obstacles to clear before that comes to fruition.

SONGS was first shuttered in 2012 after numerous issues arose. Edison has been transferring the spent fuel and waste from cooling pools on-site to dry storage in the canisters since 2018. As of last week, 69 canisters have been transferred, with only four more to go. The transfers will most likely be completed by the end of August.

Once the transferring of waste material is complete, the next phase of the project will be the actual dismantlement of the SONGS plant. The project is expected to take eight to 10 years to complete.

At that time, there won’t be anything visible from Interstate 5, including the large concrete reactor domes. The only thing left will be the concrete storage matrix Edison has constructed to house the canisters.

As a surfer and somebody who enjoys our local coastline, it’s a hard pill to swallow knowing that there’s not much that can be done about the nuclear waste piled on our shore until at least 2035, and probably longer.

We can hope that these canisters don’t degrade and that they last at least as long as their 25-year guarantee, but I’m finding it hard to be optimistic considering what could happen if this waste is compromised in any way.

The only thing left for our community to do is try and get the federal government to actually do something, but, again, I’m finding it hard to be optimistic.

Jake Howard is local surfer and freelance writer who lives in San Clemente. A former editor at Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and ESPN, today he writes for a number of publications, including the San Clemente Times, Dana Point Times, Surfline and the World Surf League. He also works with philanthropic organizations such as the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center and the Positive Vibe Warriors Foundation.

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